Felicity Long
Felicity Long

InsightRussia has been in the news lately, and not in a good way, because of the country’s recent crackdown on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

A new law, championed by President Vladimir Putin, outlaws rallies and public support of the gay community -- no rainbow flags are allowed in public, for example -- and the head of the Russian Orthodox church publicly compared gay marriage to nothing short of the apocalypse.

Social media has played a part in bringing the issue to light internationally, sparking debate on what impact this hard-line attitude could have on the Olympic Winter Games to be held in Sochi, Russia, in February.FelicityLong 

The ski area is slated to host 15 of some of the most popular winter sports in the Games, including alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, snowboarding, speed skating and figure skating.

Hosting the Games is a big deal for the region, as it marks the first time the event will be held in Russia (technically, the 1980 Moscow Olympics took place in the Soviet Union). But even though some Russian politicos are backpedaling on the extent to which the law would apply to tourists during the Games, fans and athletes are understandably worried. After all, saying gay visitors won’t be prosecuted for merely being gay, as long as they don’t proselytize in the streets, is a long way from saying “welcome.”

Some LGBT activists are urging an international boycott of the Games, while others are refusing to buy Russian products, including vodka. Tour operator IsramWorld last week said it would no longer accept new bookings for Russia because of its anti-gay law. 

While the Olympic Committee and NBC, which will broadcast the event, have both come under fire for not taking a stronger stance on the controversy, some athletes are against a boycott. American Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, for example, whose husband is a Russian skater, has said he plans to attend, hoping his mere presence will inspire local gays and lesbians in their own cause.

The biggest losers if the firestorm does adversely impact tourism could be the Black Sea resort of Sochi itself, which is also poised to host the G8 summit and the inaugural Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2014 (although a deadline snafu has put the auto race in question).

The resort appeals to both summer and winter visitors, and tourism officials are hoping it could become a beach and ski playground for international travelers. The hotel scene is growing to meet anticipated demand. Radisson Blu has a property there, for example, and Swissotel Hotels & Resorts is opening a mountain and beach property in Sochi in time for the Winter Olympics.

Although it’s unclear what the resolution will be, this story will be one to watch over the next few months.

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